For quite some time, the Santosh Trophy has been a suspect affair. Squeezed at the end of the football calendar, often at the expense of an essential recovery period for professional players after a strenuous I-League, the country’s most prestigious senior inter-state football championship has lost its sheen.
This time, the World Cup has provided the players with a much-needed break after I-League 3 ended in May. However, the tournament will miss the national team players, who are training in Portugal for the Asian Cup to be held early next year.
Defending champions Goa will be the hardest hit by the exodus, but according to Dempo coach Armando Colaco, finding younger replacements was never a problem in the state. Last year’s runners-up, Bengal, too have lost players to the national camp, but will hope for a better show in their backyard.
With a team studded with I-League players, 29-time winners Bengal will continue to fancy their chances, even though their last title came 11 years back, but lesser-known teams can be a thorn in their flesh.
While trophy count suggests Bengal, Goa, Punjab and Kerala remain perennial favourites, Karnataka, Maharashtra and states from the Northeast also possess the potential to spring a surprise.
Chandigarh have already added to the anticipation by winning the National Junior Championship for the first time last month, beating favourites Bengal in penalty shoot-out. And, according to their coach and former India international Tejinder Singh, other teams too are waiting to break long-held notions.
It’s going to be a Santosh Trophy without Bhaichung Bhutia & Co, but it gives new stars a stage to shine.
And it all starts here on Thursday.